I saw a common point being made about Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow yesterday.
It was inevitable that Cole would be pitching for the Yankees at this point, and Glasnow is largely the same pitcher he was in Pittsburgh before the trade.
The argument is apt for Cole, as he would have been a free agent after the 2019 season, and was never going to be re-signing with the Pirates. That argument still gives credence to the Pirates failing to maximize their value with Cole, either with his performance while he was in Pittsburgh, or with the trade that sent him to Houston.
You could make an argument that Glasnow is the same pitcher he was prior to the trade, although I’d disagree. If you’re doing that based off of 2020 stats, then you start down the rabbit hole of whether any individual’s 2020 stats reflect their value.
Of course, it’s hard to get a read on Glasnow, since he was dominant in 2019, but that came in about the same amount of innings as his 2020 season. Overall, Glasnow has put up a 3.32 ERA and a 3.05 xFIP with the Rays since the trade, spanning 173.2 innings over 34 starts. If that’s the same pitcher he was with the Pirates, then the question is: Why did they trade him?
But let’s entertain the idea that he’s largely the same pitcher he was with the Pirates, which boils down to an argument that he’s got electric stuff, but he’s too inconsistent.
The question here would still be: Why didn’t the Pirates use him as a starter?
They had just traded Cole and Andrew McCutchen, which would typically signal that it would be a rebuilding year. Except this was in the height of No Man’s Land, where the Pirates were still trying to rebuild for the long-term and win in the short-term, all at the same time. They also had an idea that prospects could come up in smaller roles and work their way into bigger roles, with position players turning into utility players, and pitchers going to the bullpen.
That approach wasn’t consistent across the board. Some position players arrived and went right into a starting role, while some pitchers went directly to the rotation. The problem was that the Pirates were still trying to win in the short-term, which leaves little patience for guys like Glasnow who might need an adjustment year in the rotation.
Maybe the plan worked. Glasnow went directly to the rotation in Tampa, and by his admission, the Rays didn’t really change anything with him that year. He performed very well as a starter, and was doing the same thing in the bullpen with the Pirates.
The question is: Why didn’t the Pirates ever give him a shot to start?
At the beginning of the season they used Steven Brault and then Nick Kingham as starters, rather than giving their best pitching prospect an opportunity.
Then the trade deadline came, and rather than going with Glasnow, they packaged Glasnow with Austin Meadows and Shane Baz for the guaranteed help from Chris Archer.
Archer: 4.92 ERA, 4.11 xFIP in 172 IP over 33 starts
Glasnow: 3.32 ERA, 3.05 xFIP in 173.2 IP over 34 starts
The takeaway for me is twofold.
Number one: Small market teams should focus on developing impact players, rather than trying to sign or trade for them. They really can’t afford to out-bid large market teams in free agency with dollars. They can out-bid large market teams on the trade market with prospects, but as we’ve seen here, the results can be devastating. I’m saying that as someone who was a fan of bringing in Archer, while acknowledging at the time that this deal could haunt the Pirates for a long time.
Number two: Small market teams need to suffer through the growing pains of young players. The idea that you can put a prospect in the majors and he’ll instantly have success happens very rarely. The idea that you can slowly build him up to that point in a lesser role might work, but you need to commit to making that happen before discarding him, as discarding a young player from a lesser role is the definition of selling low.
What can we take from all of this going forward?
The Pirates need to spend the next year or two giving their prospects a chance to show what they can do in the majors. That’s easy when guys like Ke’Bryan Hayes come up and immediately set the world on fire. It’s a bit more difficult when guys like Cole Tucker struggle, or guys like Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman have sophomore slumps. If the Pirates are going to win, they need to confirm what they have with their young players — good or bad — and give those players a chance to provide the Pirates with talent that they can’t really afford on the trade or free agent markets.
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